Small Turtles, Big Future: Southern Population of the Bog Turtle 

When we think about the future for the bog turtle, Glyptemys muhlenbergii, we should first consider the past. If we could hit rewind, and look back in time—millions of years back in time—there would be a vast stretch of land full of muddy bogs and fens, from upstate New York down to Georgia. Within those grassy, flooded meadows fed by springs would have hidden thousands upon thousands of one of our favorite reptiles in the world: the bog turtle.

When they are born, bog turtles are the size of a quarter. As adults, they’re only four inches. They are mysterious and secretive, spending most of their time buried in mud. Everything about them encapsulates a slow and steady approach to life; they reach sexual maturity late, lay only a few eggs a year, and can live for at least sixty years. Some of the older individuals have shells as smooth as glass, worn down from years of burrowing in the habitat for which evolution shaped them over the course of fifteen million years. 

The challenges facing this little reptile are huge: The bogs they rely on have been drained for development and agriculture, they are poached for the pet trade, and they’re hit by cars when they cross roads, looking for habitat and mates. 

Today, the bog turtle is in grave danger. Humans drained the vast majority of those once-common bogs for farmland, and slapped roads down among the rest, chopping up the habitat that remained. On top of that, being impossibly cute works against them—they are highly valued for the pet trade, and illegal poaching means that we keep the bog sites where we work a closely guarded secret. 

For all of us at ARC, the bog turtle is a species that we just can’t lose. They are too beautiful, too unique, and too ancient. If we let them slip off the landscape, something priceless will be gone, and that’s why we are doing all we can to bring this turtle back from the edge of extinction. 

Our program to recover the southern lineage of the bog turtle (there’s a northern lineage as well) is comprehensive. For starters, we want to know exactly where any remaining populations are, and how many turtles are in those populations. We do that by using machine learning that identifies habitat from aerial photography. Then, we get out in the field and look in those likely places. We often use environmental DNA (eDNA) sampling—a relatively recent technique where we take a water sample and sieve out any DNA left behind by the species that have been there.

If there’s bog turtle DNA, then we know that’s a site they are using. Often, those bogs might not be in the best shape—there’s invasive plant species like Multiflora rose that we’ll clear, and sometimes there’s still drainage tiles (used for agriculture) drying out a bog that we have to remove. When we catch turtles there, we mark them and take genetic samples so we can watch them over time. At our best sites where there are reproducing populations, we find and protect the nests from predation by putting wire cages around them. 

We are working at these individual sites, but we are always thinking about ecosystem-level restoration. That means connectivity between populations through corridors—safe, quality habitat where turtles can move around. We try to identify those corridors and protect them and build more where we can. The idea is to have a patchwork of habitat that the turtles can travel between, keeping the gene flow moving to achieve the all-important genetic diversity any species needs to survive in this difficult era of climate change. 

In addition, the future may include some much-needed protection for the southern population of the bog turtle. It is being considered for listing under the Endangered Species Act. In the Federal Register released on October 19, 2022, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) announced 90-day findings on petitions to add it to the Lists of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife and Plants. The USFWS found that substantial information indicates that the petitioned actions to list the southern bog turtle population may be warranted. Next, the species will undergo a status review and then potentially an assessment.

In our work, we have partners at the federal and state level, as well as private landowners who might have bog turtles on their land. All of us are doing everything that we can for this species. Sometimes the work isn’t easy—it can be hot, humid, muddy, and saddening. But we know that this turtle is worth it, and with your help, we are going to continue fighting to keep them with us.